Bassam Bahgat is a young filmaker, hired by a secret society to create a series of documentary films about the urban planning and architecture of Cairo. The Society of Urbanists, Bassam discovers, is responsible for centuries of world-wide conspiracies that have shaped political regimes, geographical boundaries, reigning ideologies, and religions. It is responsible for today’s Cairo, and for everywhere else, too. Yet its methods are subtle and indirect: it operates primarily through manipulating urban architecture, rather than brute force. As Bassam immerses himself in the Society and its shadowy figures, he finds Cairo on the brink of a planned apocalypse, designed to wipe out the whole city and rebuild anew.
Warnings: Graphic language, brief mentions of self harm
Category: M/F, F/F
Using Life is an Egyptian apocalyptic novel, set in Cairo and originally published in Arabic in 2014. Despite receiving positive reviews and critical acclaim, in 2016 the author was sentenced to up to two years of jail time after a reader’s complaint at the graphic language and depictions of sexual encounters. Although the conviction was overturned after mass public outcry, the censorship of this novel and it’s author bodes ill, and sets a rather nasty precedent. I wanted to give it a read, both in support of the author, and to broaden my own reading scope. As everyone knows, there’s nothing more alluring than the forbidden, and telling someone that a major government didn’t want people to read a book is a surefire way to make people want to read it.
This is an incredibly unique reading experience. The story does not follow a linear progression, instead skipping to and fro along it’s narrative, placing you at any given interval anywhere along it’s timeline and leaving you to piece the order of events together yourself. This can make it very difficult to follow, but also extremely interesting to absorb. The prose is crass and irreverent, mostly following the POV of a highly disillusioned and unhappy individual. Bassam’s jaded internal monologues are engaging, and at times intensely poetic, in a gritty sort of way. The graphic metaphors and obscene ways in which he views the world are beautiful in their own raw openness, though they certainly may make a squeamish reader shudder.
It follows a story about a secret society and it’s rise to power over the world, launching an apocalypse that will give it the ability to reshape the world into it’s own ideals. Bassam becomes embroiled in these plots, and the most interesting thing is that the book doesn’t even actively condemn the leaders of this society, but rather lets you form your own conclusions as Bassam never seems to form any for himself. It’s a very thoughtful read, and worth the contemplation that it inspires. It’s also interspersed with illustrations and comic pages, that give the book an even more surrealism feeling.
I will say, however, that the text switches between present and past tense, as well as between first person and third person, and these inconsistencies are jarring. Of course, this could be an issue more with the English translation than with the original text.
In Using Life, you become more emotionally engaged with the poetry and the atmosphere than you necessarily do with the characters. There isn’t much that is of special interest about any of them, and I think if I had a criticism it would be precisely that. I felt next to no connection to anyone in the story, even if they were interesting examples of daily life. However, I’m not really certain that there was intended to be, and it seems much more like the prose is meant to feel like an experience and a journey. It’s so saturated in a strange feeling of misanthropic euphoria that the emotional connection comes from being steeped in it’s world and it’s mentalities, in a way I’m not sure I have experienced before. I wasn’t sure how I was going to approach even discussing it in terms of emotional engagement because it feels so deeply like the city of Cairo is it’s principle character rather than Bassam, which leads me into a perfect segue to discussing it’s worldbuilding.
Other commentators have described Using Life as being a picture of “a man having a lover’s spat with his city” which is entirely accurate. Cairo, or at least this near-future, on the edge of apocalypse version of Cairo, comes to life in beautiful, flawed, graphic, gruesome and breathtaking detail. Bassam has a deeply obsessive hate relationship with his city, which has ingrained itself under his skin in ways that are both intimate and sensual. The picture we get of it is like a picture of an open wound; disturbing but compelling and altogether real. One of my favourite passages in the entire book is a long meandering dissertation on the secret, under the surface groups that inhabit Cairo’s underbelly. I was blown away by the amount of immersion into this setting that the book gives us; it presents us to Cairo like Cairo is an abusive lover, hurting it’s characters in the same breath that it wont let go of them. And yet despite how ugly and angry the city is there’s a kind of dark beauty in the prose describing it, like Bassam just can’t let go of his love for it. I’ve never been so emotionally engaged with a setting before, and felt like I was there on it’s sand covered streets and in it’s run down seedy bars.
Of course the big point of contention, the reason Using Life landed the author in jail, was for the graphic depictions of sexual encounters that are throughout the book. Not only is the book full of actual scenes depicting sex, but the prose itself is rather graphic in nature, with crass metaphors peppered all through the book. This lends a raw amount of character to the story, and I absolutely love the irreverent way in which the book approaches sex and sexuality. At one point Bassam remarks that in Cairo, you have to learn to let go of your sexual frustration and accept sex as just another facet of adult friendship, or you would go mad with lust, and that passage sticks with me as an accurate picture of how the characters of Using Life struggle with love and sex. It’s not erotic at all in a way, but it’s honest and contemplative and it feels real. Sex permeates the narrative about as much as does Bassam’s despondency, and it was a joy to read even if it wasn’t “sexy” in an erotica sense.
Reading Using Life was a fascinating, enriching experience that left me in contemplation for some time after the reading. I am appalled that Ahmed Naji was censored over the inclusion of something that is so deeply a part of adult life, so a part of our experience of humanity, and am very grateful that I can read this book, that it was not doomed to censorship obscurity. It was every bit a compelling journey and a picture of the human experience that I could never regret undergoing.
Have you read Using Life? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!
2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Using Life by Ahmed Naji”
I want to thank you so much. this is the best review I read about the novel, not because it praises the novel. but because you capture details that reflected my ambition in this novel and what I want to do. writing a book is like sending a message in a bottle and throw it in the sea. you don’t know if someone will receive it, or even if he receives it you doubt if he car read and decipher the message.
Your review gives me heartwarming, and wide smile on my face like finally someone deciphers the message
Thank you so much for taking the time to reach out!! It really makes me so happy to hear from you. Your book was incredible, and I am honored to have been able to read it and I am so glad that you feel like I deciphered your message. All the best to you!!